1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Picket

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PICKET, Piquet or Piquet (Fr. piquet, a pointed stake or peg, from piquer, to point or pierce), a military term, signifying an outpost or guard, supposed to have originated in the French army about 1690, from the circumstance that an infantry company on outpost duty dispersed its musketeers to watch, the small group of pikemen called piquet remaining in reserve. Thus at the present day the word “picquet” is, in Great Britain at any rate, restricted to an infantry post on the outpost line, from which the sentries or “groups” of watchers are sent out. In the United States a “picket” is synonymous with a sentry, and the “picket-line” is the extreme advanced line of observation of an army. In the French army picquets are called “grand' gardes,” and the phrase “grand guard” is often met with in English military works of the 17th and 18th centuries. A body of soldiers held in readiness for military or police duties within the limits of a camp or barracks is also called a picquet or “inlying picquet.” These special uses of the word in English axe apparently quite modern (after about 1750). “Picket” in its ordinary meaning of a peg or stake, has always been in common military use, being applied variously to the picketing pegs in horse-lines, to long pointed stakes employed in palisades or stockades, to straight thin rods used for marking out the line of fire for guns, &c. Of the various spellings “picquet” is officially adopted in Great Britain and “picket” in the United States, but the latter is now invariably used when a peg or stake is meant.

Two obsolete meanings of the word should also be mentioned. The “picket” was a form of military punishment in vogue in the 16th and 17th centuries, which consisted in the offender being forced to stand on the narrow flat top of a peg for a period of time. The punishment died out in the 18th century and was so far unfamiliar by 1800 that Sir Thomas Picton, who ordered a mulatto woman to be so punished, was accused by public opinion in England of inflicting a torture akin to impalement. It was thought, in fact, that the prisoner was forced to stand on the head of a pointed stake, and this error is repeated in the New English Dictionary. In the middle of the 19th century, when elongated rifle bullets were a novelty, they were often, and especially in America, called pickets. The ordinary military use of the word gives rise to compound forms such as “picket boat” or “picket launch,” large steam launch or pinnace fitted with guns and torpedoes, and employed for watching the waters of harbours, &c. For picketing in strikes, &c., see below.